Reaching beyond the astronauts

July 18, 1999|By Susan Q. Stranahan | Susan Q. Stranahan,Special to the Sun

"Journey Beyond Sele'ne': Remarkable Expeditions to the Ends of the Solar System," by Jeffrey Kluger. Simon & Schuster. 296 pages. $26.

Thirty years ago this month, on July 20, 1969, millions of Americans watched, transfixed, as Astronaut Neil Armstrong hopped off a ladder and onto the face of the moon. Immediately, the nation annointed the men of Apollo 11 heroes, their lunar landing the fulfillment of an American dream.

Lost in the hoopla that has always enveloped the manned missions to space are the stunning achievements of the unmanned rockets dispatched to the deepest reaches of the solar system, missions like Voyager, Galileo and Sojourner.

It is this quiet, unheralded side of America's space program that Jeffrey Kluger sets out to portray in "Journey Beyond Sele'ne'." Kluger, a senior writer for Time magazine, is intimately familiar with the thrills and hazards of manned space flight. In 1994, he co-authored with astronaut Jim Lovell the book "Lost Moon," which was renamed and became the best seller and movie "Apollo 13."

In this book, Kluger promises to breathe life into the unmanned program, to introduce us to the researchers who aimed beyond our moon -- Sele'ne', as it was known to the Greeks -- and to detail the technological and political battles that often threatened to keep their heavenly journey Earthbound.

Like many of the early rockets launched in the program, however, Kluger aims high but sometimes misses his target. He writes of the scientists and engineers who populated California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and who gave America the Ranger, Surveyor and Mariner rockets. But we don't know them.

He has re-created their conversations, but not their personalities. He has detailed their work, but not their motivations. For all we can tell, these were drab men with no lives outside the drab research center. That can't be the case, even within this decidedly slide-rule set.

We briefly read of the almost comical series of screw-ups that led the media to dub an early Navy effort the "Kaputnik." And we learn of the Ranger series from the 1960s that failed with such predictable regularity that its project leader countered: "The only way to design a rocket that works is to launch a lot that don't."

But these anecdotes are told at arm's length, only whetting our appetite for more details.

Also missing from this history is sufficient mention of Washington, beyond an encounter with a member of Congress and an irritated -- then placated -- Lyndon Johnson.

Even during the peak of the space race with the Soviets, there must have been skeptics about these multimillion-dollar missions. The reader is left wondering just how the scientists routinely sidestepped the pols to achieve their dreams.

What Kluger has assembled, however, is a thorough account of the scientific expeditions that have taken place in the penumbra of the manned space program. The small steps taken over nearly a half-century will never in the public mind rival the impact of Neil Armstrong's hop off the ladder.

But that event, we are led to believe, was as much show biz as science. The true space explorers, Kluger argues, are the slender silver rockets that set off on billion-mile, years-long journeys, beaming back an unceasing stream of valued data to those whose minds are fixed on the stars but whose feet will never leave the ground.

Susan Q. Stranahan covers environmental issues for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the National Wildlife Federation Magazine, among others. Her book "Susquehanna: River of Dreams" was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1993.

Pub Date: 07/18/99

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